Space has been a big topic these past couple months: SpaceX’s planning to colonize the Red Planet, Blue Origin wanting to send people into space, and as of October 19, a spacecraft landing on Mars. The European Space Agency (ESA) launched the Schiaparelli spacecraft in March 2016, attached to the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). On October 16, three days before the planned landing, the lander and orbiter separated. The spacecraft is named after 19th century Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who was the first to map Mars’ surface. The spacecraft weighs 1,320 pounds and has traveled millions of miles across the solar system to get to Mars. Schiaparelli was in hibernation until it entered Mars’ atmosphere. Upon entering, it turned on to send data up to TGO, which is orbiting Mars.
TGO, Schiaparelli’s “mothership,” is about 60 feet long, and will have a longer mission than the lander. It will go into an elliptical orbit around Mars; coming as close as 186 miles and as far as 60,000 miles. In March 2017, TGO will start going into a circular orbit 250 miles high. In 2018, it will start trying to detect gases, especially methane, in the atmosphere. Any traces of gases will help indicate whether it is possible to sustain life on Mars. TGO’s mission will end in December 2022.
The Schiaparelli lander entered the atmosphere at about 13,000 miles per hour, using thrusters to slow down to about 1000 miles per hour, and then deploying a parachute. At about 6 feet above ground, the thrusters should turn off and the lander will drop down. When the Schiaparelli lander was supposed to send out a signal after landing, it was silent. It sent out a signal on its way down, but stopped transmitting about 50 seconds before it hit the surface of the planet. It is not yet known whether Schipparelli successfully landed or crashed onto Mars’ surface. The lander has a heat shield to protect it from the atmosphere. Doppler radar altimeter and velocimeter helped the spacecraft determine its position from the surface.
The ESA researchers suspect unexpected parachute deployment and early shutdown of thrusters to be the issue, but they are still investigating. On Thursday, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter located the crash site of the lander.
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